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Sabah Standoff Continues

(Article No. 11 – The Vincent Times)
February 18, 2013

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The standoff in Sabah entered its second week  without  a definite resolution notwithstanding  the efforts  exerted by  both the Malaysian and the Philippine governments.  A police official in the Philippines said that the situation is “volatile” but refused to elaborate.

The problem started when on February 12 around 200 armed people, most of whom are Filipinos landed in the secluded town of Lahad Datu in Sabah and holed up there. The group claimed to be followers and members of the Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu.

When interviewed by the media in the Philippines, Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram,  one of the leaders of the Sultanate of Sulu, claimed that their army is sufficiently armed. The Muslim-Filipino group is ready to fight back if provoked.  According to reports, the armed men from Sulu had raised  yellow flags with a lion insignia outside a “surau.”

There were conflicting reports on the exact number of the Muslim-Filipinos staying in the area. The rough estimate was 100 to 200 although some are claiming that there are actually around 400. Even as to how many of them are armed could not be determined. Initial reports put the number of those carrying arms as only 20. But some eyewitnesses  said that it looked like most of them are carrying weapons.

Malaysian authorities have since cordoned the area and tightened security. The police in the vicinity have set up a series of roadblocks along all routes in Lahad Datu. They have also secured the territorial waters in the area which the group used as entry point.

It was reported that those responsible for the standoff landed by  boat near the Borneo town of Lahad Datu in  Sabah from the neighboring southern Philippines on Tuesday.

Leaders in Kuala Lumpur warned  that  while they are seeking  a peaceful  resolution, the Malaysian  government will not compromise  on the rights and security of the people of Sabah.

Authorities from Manila and Kuala Lumpur are discussing the incident but no details of their talks have been revealed to the media.

Response of the Reigning Sultan of Sulu

Going around in media outlets is a circular bearing the letterhead of the Sultanate of Sulu  saying that the incident in Sabah may escalate in a full scale war that may  catch the attention of the international community

There were reports indicating that Sultan Janalul Kiram threatened that his men which he said is comprised of about 400 people including 20 armed men will not leave. And he said that why would they leave  when they came there to reclaim the area  which is their ancestral territory.

Kiram pointed out that even cornered by the Malaysian security forces his followers are resolute in staying.  The Sultan was quoted as saying, “Why should we leave  our own home? In fact they [the Malaysian Government] are paying rent to us.”

Response of the Philippine Government

The Philippine government assured their counterparts  in Malaysia that they did not sanction the activity of the Filipino group. Officials of the Aquino administration said that they are committed to ensuring a peaceful end  to the standoff in Sabah. They even promised to conduct an investigation into the incident as soon as is it peacefully resolved.

Officials of the Aquino Government  even expressed willingness  to negotiate between the Sultan of Sulu and the Government of Malaysia.

What Prompted the Incident in Sabah

Aside from asserting their territorial rights, there were other reasons cited as to why the followers of the Sultan of Sulu conducted the operation.

In interviews Sultan Janalul Kiram said that what induced  him to send his group to Sabah was when the Sultanate was ignored in the peace agreement that was forged between the Philippine government and the Filipino Muslim rebels in October last year. Curiously, the Malaysian government brokered that peace agreement .

In addition, he said that the Sultanate intends to establish residence in the place they occupy now  much as the sultanate owns Sabah by rights of sovereignty.

There were  also assumptions that the Sultan of Sulu intends to pressure the Malaysian government to increase their yearly compensation package to the Sultanate. As it is,  for a territory as vast as Sabah, with all its natural wealth and abundant resources, the Sultanate receives a “cession/rental  money” amounting only to approximately 6,300 Malaysian Ringgit per year.

Sabah Claim Rekindled

The current standoff in Sabah has seemingly rekindled the Philippine Sabah Claim. Sabah is a part of the Sultanate of Sulu and it was only leased  to the British North Borneo Company.  It was unfortunate that the British crown turned over Sabah to Malaysia when it granted the latter its independence instead of returning it to the Sultan of Sulu.

Sabah was given to the Sultan of Sulu as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunie defeat his enemies. Since then, that part of Borneo was recognized as part of the Sultan of Sulu’s sovereignty.

It can be argued, according to legal experts that the the British government erred when they turned over Sabah to Malaysia for the agreement was between the British North Borneo Company and the Sultan of Sulu. Malaysia does not even exist as an entity when the lease agreement was signed.

Even the United States of America who had the Philippines under their control from the time the Spaniards left the Philippines in the late 1890’s until  shortly after the end of the World War 2 in 1945 have reminded  the British crown that North Borneo did  not belong to them but to the Sultanate of Sulu.  The latter ignored the reminder.

There was a law enacted by the Philippine government (RA 5446) in 1968 that regards Sabah as a territory for which the country has dominion and sovereignty. In 2011, the Supreme Court of the Philippines declared that Philippine claim over Sabah is retained and such claim may be pursued at any time.

The Philippine claim to Sabah has in the past strained diplomatic relationship between Philippines and Malaysia.

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